Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seeds and seed pods are arranged in a still life. Native throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the plant’s bright-orange coloring and copious nectar production attract bees, hummingbirds and other native pollinators. Milkweed seeds’ fine, feathery fibers—called silk or floss—allow the seeds to be carried on the wind.
As its name implies, butterfly milkweed is perhaps best known for its importance to butterflies. Also called butterfly flower or butterflyweed, the plant—along with other types of milkweed, including common milkweed and swamp milkweed—is the only food source of the monarch butterfly. Milkweed produces toxic chemicals that accumulate in the insect’s body, making them poisonous to predators.
But historically, milkweed has played an important role for humans as well. Pillows and mattresses have been stuffed with milkweed silk for centuries. During World War II, the plant gained national fame when war with Japan cut off access to the soft, cottony fibers of the seeds of the kapok tree, which the U.S. had used as filling for military life jackets. Through a national campaign, an estimated 11 million pounds of milkweed were collected—primarily by children using pillowcases—as a substitute filling.
Although potentially poisonous, the plant has been used for medicinal purposes as well. Many indigenous tribes applied milkweed sap for wart removal and chewed its roots to treat dysentery. It was also used in salves and infusions to treat swelling, rashes, coughs, fevers and asthma. Milkweed was even added to dishes for flavor, or to thicken soups—although special care was needed in the identification and preparation of the plant, to avoid its toxicity.
Image by Will Parson